Gabriela Sabatini overpowered top-seeded Steffi Graf 6-4, 6-4 Saturday to join Monica Seles in the title match of the Virginia Slims Championships.
Sabatini's victory brought a standing ovation from a Madison Square Garden crowd of 18,209, the most ever to watch a women's tennis match. And it came right after Seles twice came from behind to defeat Mary Joe Fernandez 6-3, 6-4 in the first semifinal.Sabatini will be after her second Slims title in three years. She won the season-ending event in 1988.
"Every time I play her aggressively, I beat her," Sabatini said.
And, on this day, she played aggressively, coming to the net at every chance, always keeping the pressure on Graf, forcing her to hit the perfect shot. It was too much of a task for Graf, who, although finishing the year as the No. 1 player, won only one major title in 1990 - the Australian Open in January.
Either Sabatini, who won the U.S. Open in September, and Seles, the French Open winner in June, will have won two of the five big titles after Sunday's championship match.
And, although it was the second time in the last four meetings that Sabatini has beaten Graf, the No. 1 seed picked Seles to win Sunday's best-of-5-sets match.
"The key thing is their conditioning," Graf said. "I don't know how they're both feeling. Usuually I would go for Seles. But if they're going to play three-four-five sets, she (Seles) has more power to attack and a better serve."
Graf began the match in typical Graf form. Eight minutes into the match, she led 3-0 and had lost just two points, one in each of the first two games.
Her forehand, as usual, was overpowering and her backhand was adequate enough to set up her forehand. She appeared to be recovered from the gastritis that bothered her in her opening match. She looked like the Graf that won five consecutive Grand Slim titles.
There was no hint as to what was about to happen.
Sabatini found a weakness in Graf's well-fortified arsenal. But it's one thing to find it, another to exploit it - and the Argentine had the weaponry to do just that.
Sabatini changed speeds so Graf couldn't get her power game in a groove and went to Graf's backhand every time she needed a point. She won five consecutive games to take a 5-3 lead in the opening set, then closed it out when she held at love in the 10th game.
When Sabatini broke Graf to begin the second set, the crowd began to sense it might be a short match. It actually wasn't but that was because of Graf's fighting nature.
Graf broke back in the fourth game, lost her serve again in the fifth game, then broke right back. Those three straight breaks left the two even at 3-3. And when Graf held at love to take a 4-3 lead, Sabatini's appearance in the final wasn't all that assured.
But the Argentine continued her attacking tactics, held at 15 to pull to 4-4, then broke Graf yet again, this time at 15, to take a 5-4 lead. It also meant she was serving for the match.
With the crowd roaring on every point, Sabatini held at 15, the next-to-last point coming on her second ace of the day, then closed out the victory when Graf slamed a forehand service return into the net.
"Right now, yes," Graf said when asked if she was angry with her performance. "I think my backhand was very weak today. I made many easy mistakes. Sometimes I was just trying to keep the ball in play."
"I think that's the way she had to do it. Obviously she played very well today. She served well and she didn't make too many mistakes."
"I think you have to play the whole time at the same level," she said. "That's what I'm going to have to do next year."
As far as Sunday's match against Seles goes, Sabatini says she will have to repeat Saturday's performance.
"It's a tough match," she said. "I hope to be ready. I know she will stay on the baseline and I will be aggressive like I was today."
Seles gave a teasing performance in her victory over Fernandez.
Fernandez, seeded fourth, rushed out to a 4-1 lead in the second set and appeared ready to send the match into a decisive third set. But it was not to be as Seles ran off the last five games.
The well-played first set ended on a bit of controversy as Seles' forehand to the baseline was called good. Fernandez complained in her quiet way, standing at the baseline with a pleading look at umpire Joan Bornbaum.
It was to no avail, and Seles had captured the set in 30 minutes, winning the last four games.